In the ever-evolving landscape of broadband technology, a revolutionary wave is rising – next-generation fixed wireless access (ngFWA). This cutting-edge solution is redefining what is possible in the realm of internet connectivity, challenging the traditional limitations and reshaping the future of broadband.

Amidst unprecedented federal funding opportunities for broadband, the United States confronts a stark reality: the persistent ‘digital divide.’ This gap, defined by unequal access to vital internet and information technology, continues to impact tens of millions of Americans across socioeconomic boundaries.

While the push towards deploying fiber to fill this gap has been substantial, a surprising statistic emerges – approximately 55% of U.S. households have fiber passing their homes, but not necessarily delivering service to them. In this context, ngFWA emerges not just as an alternative, but a potential game-changer.

Dgtl Infra explores how ngFWA stands as a catalyst for change, offering to bridge the digital divide with its high-speed, cost-effective, and reliable broadband internet access. Discover how this next-generation technology, powered by Tarana, can be the key to unlocking a more connected, inclusive future.

Understanding the Digital Divide

The ‘digital divide’ represents the gap in access to information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially the internet, among individuals, households, businesses, and geographic regions at different socioeconomic levels. This divide is not just about who owns a smartphone or a laptop; it’s a broader issue that separates entire communities, businesses, and even the country into digital “haves” and “have-nots.” A critical factor contributing to the digital divide is the availability of broadband. When access to high-speed internet is limited or unequal, it exacerbates social and economic disparities.

Broadband Access Disparities in the U.S.

Bridging the digital divide is recognized as a priority across many regulatory bodies in the United States. However, estimates of the number of unconnected individuals across the nation vary significantly due to differing definitions and methodologies.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maintains a dataset called the Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric. According to this source, approximately 7.8 million U.S. households are unserved, lacking access to basic broadband service – defined as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. Additionally, about 14.8 million households are considered underserved, lacking access to higher-speed broadband service of 100 Mbps download speed and 20 Mbps upload speed.

Map of the United States from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration NTIA Internet Use Survey
Source: National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

In contrast, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), another U.S. government agency, presents a broader perspective in its Internet Use Survey. This survey indicates that over 24 million people in the United States live in households where no one uses the internet at home, highlighting a more expansive view of the digital divide.

While sources vary, it is evident that the digital divide affects millions of Americans, potentially tens of millions. Furthermore, an additional 50 million people in the U.S. face severely limited options for high-speed broadband services, exacerbating the issue.

An Example of the Implications of the Digital Divide

In the digital heartland of Orangetree, Florida, the harsh reality of the digital divide is starkly evident. Here, the gap between the haves and have-nots isn’t just a matter of convenience; it’s a gap that affects everything from education to employment, widening societal and economic rifts. This digital divide particularly stunts educational growth, as students without digital resources grapple with a challenging and disadvantaged learning experience, leading to a snowball effect in skill and knowledge acquisition.

Dgtl Infra’s recent visit into the suburban landscapes of Florida’s Gulf Coast brought this issue into a glaring spotlight. Picture this: a determined mother and her homeschooled son, striving for educational excellence, yet thwarted by the simplest of modern necessities – reliable internet. Their story mirrors a broader narrative of digital inequality.

Homeschooling of Young Boy Writing Homework Beside Concentrating Mother who is Helping with Laptop

Despite regular assurances from a national cable giant, this family found themselves in a digital desert, with no proper internet oasis in sight. Their stopgap solution? A 4G/LTE mobile broadband service, powered by a portable Wi-Fi hotspot. But this fix was fraught with issues: slow speeds, unreliable connections, and frustrating levels of latency.

Enter Streamline Internet, a local, community-oriented internet service provider (ISP). Streamline extended a lifeline through Tarana’s next-generation fixed wireless access (ngFWA) technology, offering fixed wireless broadband that turned the tide for this family.

Suddenly, the digital world was accessible – streaming videos, uploading content, and diving into online research became seamless. No more driving to local parks and libraries for a sliver of internet connectivity; they now had a digital superhighway running right through their living room. This transformation is more than a tech upgrade; it’s a leap towards bridging the gaping digital divide in America.

Current Broadband Technologies

In the United States, the primary wired broadband technologies are cable, fiber optics, and copper-based digital subscriber line (DSL). For wireless broadband, the main technologies include cellular networks using licensed spectrum, which adhere to 4G LTE and 5G standards, and fixed wireless networks operating on lightly licensed and unlicensed spectrum, such as the 3.5 GHz band (Citizens Broadband Radio Service, CBRS), 5 GHz, and 6 GHz frequencies. Additionally, satellite internet plays a lesser role in wireless broadband.

The vast geography of America, spanning about 3.8 million square miles, presents significant challenges in deploying high-speed wired broadband technologies like cable and fiber optics over long distances. This is especially true in many suburban, rural, and remote areas, where the high costs of construction and labor, coupled with logistical complexities, make these technologies impractical. Meanwhile, alternative solutions like satellite internet and DSL are limited by their network capacity, speed, and latency. Therefore, a new approach is needed.

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) Broadband

Fixed wireless access (FWA) broadband emerges as a viable alternative, offering faster and more reliable internet than satellite, with simpler and more cost-effective deployment compared to fiber optics. FWA stands out as a crucial technology for bridging the digital divide, potentially benefiting tens of millions of Americans who currently lack adequate internet access.

This sentiment is echoed by telecommunications thought leaders. The latest Ericsson Mobility Report highlights the rapid evolution of FWA, notably “with its capability to deliver fiber-like speeds”. The report highlights that in North America, “FWA, providing high-speed internet to homes and small businesses, remains the primary technology fueling fixed broadband growth”.

Ericsson’s report also projects a significant expansion of global fixed wireless access connections, estimating an increase from 132 million in 2023 to 330 million by 2029.

Ericsson Mobility Report Chart on Fixed Wireless Access Connections in Millions Globally
Source: Ericsson Mobility Report.

This growth, representing a 17% compound annual growth rate (CAGR), is expected to account for 18% of all fixed broadband connections worldwide by 2029.

A key driver of fixed wireless access growth is the introduction of next-generation fixed wireless access (ngFWA) technology due to its superior capabilities compared to existing market options. ngFWA is set to significantly enhance the features and performance of fixed wireless access broadband service.

Next-Generation Fixed Wireless Access (ngFWA) Technology

Next-generation fixed wireless access (ngFWA) technology marks a notable advancement in wireless communications. It provides high-speed internet connectivity through a sophisticated radio wave management system. This system ensures stable and fast internet access in various environments, including urban, suburban, and rural areas, effectively overcoming challenges posed by physical obstacles and interference.

ngFWA Technology Illustration of Base Nodes BNs and Remote Nodes RNs with Backhaul and Cell Tower
Source: Tarana.

ngFWA technology is comprised of three main components:

  1. Base Nodes (BNs): A single base node covers several square miles and is typically mounted 100 feet or more above ground level on vertical structures like cell towers, water towers, or tall buildings. Each base node, serving as a central transmitter and controller, offers 90-degree coverage and can provide connectivity to approximately 250 homes. Usually, four base nodes are installed on a cell tower to ensure 360-degree coverage, accommodating the needs of up to 1,000 homes within this range
  2. Remote Nodes (RNs): These nodes are installed outdoors at residential subscriber sites. Known as customer premises equipment (CPE), remote nodes automatically align with the optimal base node, establishing a connection point between customers and the network
  3. Backhaul: The base nodes are linked to the main internet infrastructure via a fiber optic connection. This backhaul connection facilitates high-speed data transfer and reliable connectivity between wireless access points and the core network, ensuring efficient and uninterrupted internet service

Key Features and Improvements of ngFWA Technology

Previously, fixed wireless access (FWA) broadband technology faced challenges in delivering consistent capacity and high-speed internet. These challenges were primarily due to interference, line-of-sight issues, and the distance between users and base nodes. Moreover, environmental factors such as terrain, weather conditions, and physical obstructions like trees also significantly affected the reliability and quality of service.

However, the advent of next-generation fixed wireless access (ngFWA) technology has brought about significant improvements. ngFWA technology introduces several innovative features, including:

Re-Engineered for Broadband

Tarana, the leader in ngFWA technology, has specifically engineered its Gigabit 1 (G1) platform for broadband delivery. Unlike its predecessors, G1 does not adhere to the 3GPP standards used in systems like 5G, which are primarily intended for mobile phones. Nor does it follow Wi-Fi standards, typically designed for indoor shared networks with a “best efforts” approach.

Existing, legacy FWA products rely on commercial wireless silicon tailored for these cellular or Wi-Fi networks. In contrast, Tarana’s ngFWA uses proprietary, custom-designed application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) engineered specifically for broadband delivery. This unique approach enables ngFWA technology to significantly enhance performance for internet service providers (ISPs) who offer broadband services to their customers on a large scale.

Interference Cancellation and Management

ngFWA employs an advanced technique known as asynchronous burst interference cancellation (ABIC) during transmission in unlicensed spectrum bands, such as those used by Wi-Fi networks. This method can achieve up to 40 dB of interference cancellation – which equates to ignoring noise 1,000 times stronger than the signal of interest. It effectively mitigates multiple forms of interference from other access points operating in shared spectrum bands (3.5 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz in Tarana’s case), which are commonly used by a number of different users.

Dynamic Beamforming for Non-Line-of-Sight Connectivity

Dynamic beamforming allows for the creation of multiple paths in each channel, enabling signals to reach the remote node (RN) by reflection and diffraction. As a result, connectivity is possible even without a clear line-of-sight between the transmitting base node (BN) and receiving remote node (RN). Obstacles such as trees and buildings, which traditionally impeded signal clarity, no longer pose significant issues.

The dual capability of line-of-sight (LoS) and non-line-of-sight (NLoS) in ngFWA technology ensures consistent and reliable internet connectivity in various physical environments. While LoS provides optimal performance where the path between the transmitter and receiver is clear and direct, NLoS is crucial for overcoming physical obstructions like foliage. This adaptability enhances ngFWA’s effectiveness in varied geographic terrain and urban environments, significantly expanding its service range and reliability.

Distributed Massive MIMO for Throughput

Distributed Massive MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) technology is crucial for achieving high throughput rates, enabling Tarana’s ngFWA platform to deliver about 800 Mbps of aggregate throughput to a single remote node (RN). It also enables symmetric bandwidth delivery, which is essential for homes seeking equal uplink and downlink speeds from their internet service providers (ISPs). For example, symmetric ngFWA service tiers might include 100 megabits per second (Mbps) for both download and upload speeds or 200 Mbps for both.

Tarana has announced, demonstrated, and is set to begin shipping in commercial products early this year a software upgrade to its G1 platform that enables it to double the amount of spectrum it can use, thereby doubling all of the speeds referenced above.

Consumer Benefits of ngFWA Technology

Next-generation fixed wireless access (ngFWA) broadband technology offers several advantages, especially in regions where traditional wired broadband is less practical or efficient. Below are four primary benefits of ngFWA for consumers:

1. High-Speed Internet Access

ngFWA technology has evolved to provide high-speed internet access, rivaling traditional broadband solutions. For context, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) requires that state and territorial broadband projects offer a minimum service of 100 Mbps download speed and 20 Mbps upload speed.

Tarana’s ngFWA Gigabit 1 (G1) platform significantly exceeds the NTIA’s standard by delivering approximately 800 Mbps of total throughput to a single remote node (RN) at a customer’s home. This performance greatly surpasses the NTIA’s recommended minimum.

Ideally for internet service providers (ISPs), 800 Mbps of total throughput translates to internet speeds for consumers of around 640 Mbps for download and 160 Mbps for upload. Tarana’s ngFWA system allows for flexible distribution of bandwidth between upload and download streams, meeting either customer preferences or ISP network performance objectives.

2. Improved Coverage

ngFWA significantly improves internet coverage, reaching more homes because its signals do not rely solely on direct visual paths between the transmitter and receiver. Demonstrated in the video below, Tarana’s ngFWA technology is engineered to operate not only in line-of-sight (LoS) conditions but also near- and non-line-of-sight (NLoS) scenarios.

Tarana’s G1 platform can serve up to 250 homes. It offers line-of-sight coverage extending up to 18.6 miles, near line-of-sight coverage up to 10 miles, and non-line-of-sight coverage up to 3 miles. This expanded coverage is vital in reducing the digital divide. It enables high-speed internet access for communities in suburban, rural, or remote locations, which are often overlooked by traditional cable and fiber optics broadband providers.

Additionally, ngFWA offers a much quicker solution to bridging the digital divide in high-speed internet service coverage. It can be deployed faster by ISPs than wired solutions like fiber, which require extensive groundwork, such as digging trenches. This is particularly challenging in urban areas, making ngFWA an effective alternative.

3. Cost-Effectiveness

ngFWA technology requires less physical infrastructure for installation and maintenance, leading to reduced costs for internet service providers (ISPs) and, ultimately, consumers.

For comparison, typical cable broadband plans often exceed $100 per month. In contrast, standalone fixed wireless access (FWA) broadband plans offered by industry leaders such as T-Mobile and Verizon are priced at approximately $50 and $60 per month, respectively. This pricing suggests that switching to FWA could nearly halve a consumer’s cable broadband bill.

In the United States, wireless internet service providers (WISPs) have, to date, been the primary users of ngFWA technology. WISP pricing, although varying from market to market, generally remains competitive with other broadband options in those areas. For instance, Dgtl Infra observed competitive pricing with Florida-based Streamline Internet’s offerings in Collier County.

The affordability of ngFWA-based broadband solutions makes them an attractive choice in regions where installing cable and fiber optics is prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, ngFWA offers a faster and more cost-effective service alternative to other wireless broadband options, like satellite internet.

4. Reliability

ngFWA systems are increasingly reliable, providing stable internet connectivity even in poor weather conditions, like heavy rain. A key driver of this enhanced reliability is that Tarana’s technology operates in the mid-band frequencies of 3.5 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz, effectively avoiding the challenges that other FWA systems face in higher frequencies, such as those in the millimeter wave bands (e.g., 28 GHz and 60 GHz).

Additionally, Tarana’s beamforming technology significantly enhances connection stability. It does so by continuously and rapidly optimizing the fixed wireless signal by recalibrating alternative routes around obstructions 5,000 times per second, which ensures a strong and reliable connection even during adverse weather conditions.

Impact on Closing the Digital Divide

Next-generation fixed wireless access (ngFWA) technology, combined with federal funding initiatives, has significant potential to bridge the digital divide and achieve 100% universal broadband service. This goal is in line with the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, specifically under the “Broadband for All” mandate.

In the United States, more than $80 billion in funding is dedicated to this cause. The main contributor is the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, supplemented by the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), Connect America Fund Phases I and II (CAF I/II), and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

ngFWA’s high-speed, reliable connectivity aligns with U.S. telecommunications goals, like those of the NTIA’s BEAD Program. Its efficient, rapid deployment, requiring minimal infrastructure, is also attractive, especially where traditional cable and fiber are too expensive. Therefore, ngFWA is a prime candidate for BEAD Program funding, targeting the digital divide in suburban, rural, and remote areas.

Still, there is a noticeable gap in understanding the actual costs of fiber deployment at the government level. State broadband offices and entities involved in BEAD funding often lack insight into the real-world costs associated with laying fiber. This complexity stems from variations in deployment methods (such as aerial and trenching) and the complex network architecture of fiber, which can be outside the expertise of individuals in these offices.

Case Study – Challenges in Closing the Digital Divide through Fiber

In an effort to deepen the U.S. broadband initiative community’s understanding of the costs involved in closing the country’s digital divide, Tarana conducted an analysis of 132 state-funded fiber broadband projects across five states: Alabama, California, Michigan, Nebraska, and Virginia. These projects aimed to serve 52,700 households and provided insights into the cost implications of expanding fiber coverage to the millions of U.S. households who still face severely limited options for high-speed broadband services, if any at all.

Case Study of the Challenges in Closing the Digital Divide through Nationwide Fiber Deployment
Source: Tarana, tapping public records of fiber-project proposals funded by five representative state broadband program offices in 2019-2021.

This sample was chosen to represent the wide range of real-world ‘broadband-divide’ conditions across the U.S. The average capital cost for these 132 fiber projects (including grant plus matching funds) was $14,000 per household served. When adjusted for relevant construction factor-cost inflation since the sample’s 2018-2020 proposal time frames – which rose materially during the “Covid inflation era” and is now returning to longer-term historical rates – the BEAD-relevant future deployment-year weighted average cost per fiber-served location indicated by this sample is over $20,000.

While a number of factors will come into play as individual U.S. state and territory broadband offices continue to refine and implement their respective BEAD programs in the course of 2024 and beyond, it is cautionary to consider the significant budget challenge represented by the 12 million un- and underserved locations to be served by BEAD-funded infrastructure. Given fiber-oriented technology directions being pursued, that approximately $20,000 capital per location average is likely to yield total program costs that far exceed available funds.

Clearly, alternative technologies such as ngFWA that can deliver reliable broadband with fiber-class performance and higher capital efficiency in many circumstances merit consideration in BEAD program execution, in order to help the states fulfill the clearly stipulated broadband-for-all intent of the U.S. Congress’ bipartisan 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

The Future of Connectivity: ngFWA’s Role in Bridging the Digital Divide

The advent of next-generation fixed wireless access (ngFWA) is transforming internet connectivity, particularly in unserved and underserved areas. With an upcoming software upgrade to Tarana’s technology in early 2024, dubbed G1x2, their ngFWA platform capacity will double, reaching 1.6 Gbps per household. This advancement allows for gigabit-tier services, rivaling fiber performance and narrowing the digital divide with higher capital efficiency. ngFWA emerges as a sustainable and powerful solution for universal high-speed internet access.

Adam Simmons covers Towers for Dgtl Infra, including American Tower (NYSE: AMT), Crown Castle (NYSE: CCI), SBA Communications (NASDAQ: SBAC), Cellnex Telecom (BME: CLNX), Vantage Towers (ETR: VTWR), IHS Holding (NYSE: IHS), and many more. Within Towers, Adam focuses on the sub-sectors of ground-based cell towers, rooftop sites, broadcast / radio towers, and 5G. Adam has over 7 years of experience in research and writing for Towers.

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